A Swiss Christmas: Samichlaus, Chlausjagen, cookies and the tree
A Swiss Christmas is what dreams are made of. Despite growing up with songs dreaming of winter wonderlands and sleigh bells, my childhood Christmas' down under was anything but cold and white. We threw prawns on the BBQ and Santa arrived on the back of a Ute, the only cold air we had was from the air conditioning. So you can imagine why this time of year I always get excited.
As I mentioned on Monday, Christmas isn’t just celebrated on two days in December, its at least a month long celebration. And with it getting dark at 5pm, I can understand why the season is celebrated so long. Christmas lights cheer up any dark and dreary day.
With the Räbelichli parade been and gone, Christmas organisation in our house has kicked into high seeped. Gift lists need to be written and then bought (more about that next week), cookies need to be baked and time needs to be carved out for different little traditions that pop up during the month. December is always a full month, but with a little planning it doesn’t need to be stressful.
Here are a couple of things that we will be getting up to.
December wouldn’t be complete without a visit from Samichlaus around 6th December (the feast day of St. Niklaus). The Swiss tradition of Samichlaus includes a visit from Samichlaus himself, along with his two helpers called Schmutzli (translation: dirty) and who naturally come dressed all in black. Samichlaus reads to each child from his special book where he has noted down the good behaviour as well as what needs to be worked on by next year while kids listen in awe.
Kids should also learn a poem or a song which they then recite for Samichlaus and if all goes well, they will be given a bag of treats full of peanuts, mandarins, chocolates and gingerbread. It is around this time of year that we also bake Grittibanz, a samichlaus like figure made out of a sweet milk dough.
On the eve of the 6th December if you hear the sounds of bells and whips filling the air which continue well into the wee hours of the morning - you’ll know it is time for Chlausjagen.
Literally translated as Chasing the Chlaus, it is said to have its roots in pre-christian pagan traditions in chasing away the wild sprits. Men and boys dress in white Hirtenhemd (a shepard’s shirt) and carry Trycheln (Cow Bells) around the village, ringing as they go.
Each village has its own tradition with how it organizes this event, with the most famous from our region being the Küssnachter Klausjagen.
Our Boy joins in this tradition just like his Dad once did. Locally, each group has someone with an Iffele (latern worn on the head made out of cardboard and tissue paper), someone with a whip (that is cracked as they walk) and the rest carry bells. Older groups may have a Samichlaus and Schmutzlis with them. This is a rather noisy night in our village, with many of the older groups out until the sun rises the next morning.
Christmas Cookies didn’t have a big place in my home growing up. We may of been lucky to receive some butter cookies in a hamper, but traditional cookies did not really have a place in our Australian Christmas. However since living in Switzerland, I have embraced not only the Swiss cookies, but also cookies from our friends from all around the world. Each Christmas I take part in a Christmas Cookie Exchange.
Each participant bakes one type of cookie and brings enough so that each person at the swap can take half a dozen of each type home. The idea is that at the end of the swap you will have a lot of different cookies to try over the holiday season with only having to bake one sort of cookie. Over the past couple of years I have always made these soft Gingerbread cookies, and they are always a hit. We also make cookies for the kids school and instrument teachers. My mother-in-law is in charge of the Swiss Christmas cookies and we enjoy her hard work for months afterwards! My favourite Swiss cookie is definitely the Spitzbub.
The Christmas Tree
The week before Christmas we go and buy our Christmas Tree. In Australia I always grew up with a plastic tree that we put up around December 1st. The Swiss like to wait to put up their tree up until Christmas Eve. So we had to find a nice compromise and decided to put up the tree a week before Christmas. We go all together to search for the perfect tree - not too big, not too bare - and bring it home to decorate. I’ve long let go the idea of the perfectly decorated tree and now enjoy the process of it as much as the finished product.
When it comes to Christmas itself, our Swiss Family celebrate Christmas on the evening of the 24th. We go to church before having dinner with family. After dinner we light lots of candles, sit around the (real!) Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols together as a family before exchanging gifts. The kids also usually prepare a song or two on their instruments.
Santa Claus doesn’t visit Swiss children at Christmas as he does in Australia, but rather the gifts are from Baby Jesus (Christkindli).
This is very different to how we celebrate in Australia, with Santa visiting while children are sleeping on Christmas Eve, and kids then wake up to a Christmas tree full of presents under the (often fake!) Christmas Tree. In Australia the day of the 25th is the main event, with families gathering in the back yard to have a BBQ, or enjoy prawns and salads. It is usually very hot, and a swim would never be a bad idea.
We have adapted a little bit of my Aussie Christmas tradition, with Santa bringing our children one gift while they are sleeping on Christmas Eve. We spend quality time with just the five of us on Christmas morning, opening presents, having breakfast and then spending time on Facetime, visiting with family back in Australia. The rest of our Swiss family arrive either for lunch or dinner and we celebrate again at my in-laws’ house with more yummy food, Christmas carols around the tree, and more of those fabulous cookies!
Phew! No wonder I am so exhausted by Christmas day. Our season is full of lots of little traditions that make it such a magical time of year. Add in the darker days, with the sparkling of the christmas lights, flickering of the candles and the smell of Christmas cookies baking - I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How do you celebrate the Christmas season? Do you have a tradition that is special for your family or culture?